Stage 42 was swinging with song and dance Thursday night with the revival of Smokey Joe’s Cafe, the jukebox musical showcasing the work of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, songs that over the years were hits for Elvis, The Coasters, Ben E. King, The Drifters and many others. Director and choreographer Joshua Bergasse’s excellent ensemble cast had audience members clapping to the beat and even dancing in the aisles at the end.
This is a far cry from the scene when I saw the original, which opened on Broadway in 1995 and ran for nearly five years. That production was Broadway’s longest-running musical revue but the producers allowed it to continue too long so that by the time I saw it only about two dozen people were scattered throughout the vastness of the Virginia Theatre (now the August Wilson). The cast was good then too — I remember only Brenda Braxton, who I was there to interview — and the songs, including such hits as “Poison Ivy,” “Jailhouse Rock,” “Yakety Yak,” “On Broadway” and “Spanish Harlem” — were just as catchy, but the theatre felt like a ghost town. Lively it was not.
It was much more fun to be surrounded by people in a full house at Off-Broadway’s Stage 42, which I believe is only one seat short of the number required to qualify for Broadway status. Beowulf Boritt has designed a set to look like a welcoming local saloon, complete with neon beer signs on the walls. It seems natural for the full company to gather there for the opening number, “Neighborhood.”
The 37 musical numbers are presented with choreography, as comic skits or ballads over 90 intermission-less minutes. No attempt has been made to connect them into a story, which is a relief because the stories conjured for these kinds of shows are usually annoyingly contrived. The most recent example of this is Escape to Margaritaville, which would have been much better if the actors had just sung the Jimmy Buffett songs and left it at that.
For Smokey Joe’s, The Cafe Band’s eight musicians are just off stage left except for when their platform glides onto center stage, most gloriously for “Dueling Pianos.”
I also loved the nod to The Temptation, with Dwayne Cooper, John Edwards, Kyle Taylor Parker and Jelani Remy decked out in red jackets with black glitter lapels, black pants and black shirts to sing “On Broadway.” They had the smooth rhythms and vocals of that beloved Motown group. Nice costumes throughout by Alejo Vietti.
The cast also includes Emma Degerstedt, Dionne D. Figgins, Nicole Vanessa Ortiz, Max Sangerman and Alysha Umphress.
While I appreciated not having to sit through another jukebox musical with a stupid storyline, my attention did wander toward the end. Thirty-seven songs plus three reprises in 90 minutes is a lot. I was happy when I saw chairs being put on top of the table and heard the first notes of “Stand By Me,” indicating the end. It was a nice way to conclude, bringing out the entire cast to come full circle with the idea of friends together in the local tavern.
For the encore, “Saved,” they spread out into the theatre for a love fest with the audience.